150 years since the founding of the German Empire (1871-1918). Some reflections about the long shadows of German History


Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Mid-January 2021, at the occasion of commemorating the 150th anniversary of the German Empire, German President Frank Walter Steinmeier organized a roundtable discussion at his presidential residence in Berlin, in order to reflect about the historical consequences, which the founding of the German Empire (1871) has had up to this day. The invited guests included Prof. Hélène DeLaCroix, from the University Sorbonne, an expert in German -French relations, in particular in the history of the 1870/71 Prussian-French war; Cambridge Professor Dr. Christopher Clark, known for his interesting analysis about the First World War “The sleepwalkers” (2014); Professor Dr. Eckart Conze from the University of Marburg and Prof. Cristina Morina from the University of Bielefeld. The discussion was moderated by President F.W. Steinmeier. It gave a new and comprehensive insight into the history of the German Empire and its key architect, Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). According to the discussants, the Prussian-French war (1870/71), followed by the proclamation of the German Emperor Wilhelm I in Versailles, had “devastating” consequences, paving the way for the even more ruinous wars, World War I and World War II, which ended 1945 with the capitulation of Germany.

In his opening remarks Steinmeier noted that the “18th January 1871 is not a date which is truly part of the ‘collective memory’ of the Germans (…) Anyone who is actually aware that Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor on that day at the palace of Versailles, has, at best, ‘mixed feelings’ about an event, that in one triumphant gesture was designed not only to humiliate France which had just been defeated in war, but also established an empire that ultimately would lead to a new war with that country.” Our assessment on this era of German history is “ambivalent,” Steinmeier stated and underlined, that there is “no unclouded view of the Empire – as we look back on it through genocide, two World Wars and a Republic that was destroyed by its enemies.” He added that “anyone who believes National Socialism can be treated as a marginal note of German history” is thereby simply ignoring much of the baggage in the form of “militarism, national hubris, antiparliamentarianism and antisemitism, the roots of which go back, in part, to the German Empire.” Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck played a key role in the German Empire, he further outlined.

It was a “revolution from above” which also gave rise to impressive development and prepared the ground for economic, scientific, technological and cultural progress, while in the field of legislation the Civil Code, along with administrative jurisdiction, and with Bismarck’s social laws, the groundwork of Germany’ legal history was formed. Bismarck was a man who had a “deep contempt for parliament and democracy” having said that “it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided… but by iron and blood.” Under Otto von Bismarck the internal unity of the Empire was supposed to be “guaranteed by fending off external enemies and marginalizing supposed internal ones” (this referred to the “Kulturkampf” [fight between the (Protestant) Prussian state and the Catholic Church], his dealing with the Social Democrats and with the Jews who experienced at the time an increasing form of antisemitism.) “In Bismarck’s world, it was the government that controlled parliament (that didn’t have much power during that period) and not vice versa,” Steinmeier underlined. The essential character of the Empire was a “specific Prussian form of Militarism.” Parliamentarians rose to prominence above all by “opposing” the government (among the most famous August Bebel (SPD), Ludwig Windhorst (Zentrumspartei) and Eugen Richter (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei-Progressive Party).

The greatest burden which the Weimar Republic, succeeding the German Empire in 1918, had to bear, was that it came into being when the “old elites had exhausted their possibilities.”  Behind this was the attempt to place the blame for the German Empire’s military defeat in the First World War on its democratic elements. “What later became known as the stabbing-in-the-back legend (Dolchstoßlegende) and would be a rallying cry for right-wing extremist enemies of the Republic was from the start a heavy burden for the Weimar Republic.”  Steinmeier referred to the well-known German historian Heinrich August Winkler who (also in a recent book about German History) had pointed to the prominent social role played by the military and officer corps and the supreme power of command of the Prussian King. Steinmeier concluded his remarks by emphasizing that “we should not feel helpless and embarrassed in front of this legacy, but understand and learn from it for the present and future.”

In the discussion with the historians, French historian Prof. Dr. Hélène Miard DeLacroix underlined that the 1870/71 war was the beginning of the “nationalization of wars.” She qualified the proclamation of the Prussian Emperor in the palace Versailles on the 18th of January 1871, not as an “accident,” but a “complete humiliation” of the French. The French did not want to hand over the region Alsace Lorraine to the German Empire and she pointed to the myth of a “hereditary enmity” between the French and Germans with “revanchism” being its core element.  Adolf Hitler later used the term “revanchism” in response to the 1919 “treaty of Versailles” and his rise to power helped by conservative military and anti-parliamentarian forces was a response to the “humiliation of Versailles.”

Prof. Eckart Conze pointed to the dynamic of the Prussian empire, emphasizing that the “Code of the Prussian Empire” was its “war orientation,” in which the military had a special role. “War” became the “Foundation myth” of the German Nation State, and the “foreign and internal enemy” was constitutive for Germany in the 19th Century”, according to him.

Prof. Clark from Cambridge University added during the discussion that the founding of the Prussian Empire after 1871 had been commented at that time by British Conservative opposition leader Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) in the House of Commons, whereby “the creation of the German Reich 1871 was a greater event than the French revolution. It changed the dynamic on the European continent.” Conze agreed with Clark that 1890 under pressure of growing nationalism and radicalization, Bismarck’s alliance policy and diplomacy which was based on the conflict with France was to perceive Germany as a “Hegemon.” Bismarck got dismissed 1890 by Emperor Wilhelm II — one of the reasons being his fatal “treaty policy” which according to the discussants was extremely volatile.  According to Prof. DeLacroix, Bismarck’s dialogue partners were played one against the other. The only purpose was to keep one’s own self-interest.

The discussion also shed some light on Bismarck’s fight against internal enemies. This was exemplified by Bismarck’s infamous “Kulturkampf” that was launched in 1871 (1871-1887) against the German Catholics, a brutal “cultural war”, which according to Steinmeier had led to the “imprisonment of half of the German Catholic bishops.” Clark mentioned that similar cultural wars also happened in Italy and France at that time, while Prof. DeLacroix added that in France there was “antisemitism and militarism” as well. The “exclusion of Jews as expressed by the Dreyfus Affair was exemplary.”

Another topic in the discussion was the “modernization push” during the German Empire, which as Steinmeier had stated in his opening remarks, might be compared today to the rise of China: the modernization process of the German economy marked the transition from an agrarian state to an industrial one. German industrial production after 1890 was the highest in Europe, while, according to Steinmeier, in the field of science similar things occurred: 1/3 of the Nobel Prices were given to German scientists. How was such industrialization dynamic possible, under such policy?  According to Clark the modernization in the Prussian empire was a “key question for the British,” it involved the question of competence which had to do with the status of craftsmen who could read and write, while industry recognized early how to be able to lead and gave money for industrially based research. In England they called this “Made in Germany.”  Germany wanted to be superior to the British fleet.

Discussing the question of China’s spectacular rise today and certain parallels that might be drawn to the late German Empire, French historian Prof. Miard DeLaroix argued that it was “absurd” to think that China today is a repetition of the German empire.

“How we became what we are”

Another interesting perspective which offers a comprehensive understanding of the last 150 years of German history and its shadows till our present, is presented by a new book that was written by German historian Heinrich August Winkler, entitled: Wie wir wurden was wir sind (How we became what we are. A short history of the Germans (January 2021, DVA).

The book gives an interesting insight into the last 150 years of German History, the rise of the Prussian Empire and the specific role of the “iron chancellor” Otto von Bismarck in the Prussian-French War 1871; the First World War (1914-18) and the Second World War (1939-45) as well as the development of Germany in the post war history and the developments after 1989 up to the present. According to Winkler, Bismarck had provoked the German-French war from 1870/71 as an occasion to put the entire French people on the defensive against German Unity. Prussia had become “hegemon” of protestant Germany (Evangelisches Kaisertum). The Liberals supported the anti-Catholic laws of the 1870ies, as well as Bismarck’s anti-Socialist laws of 1878.  Soon an anti-liberal, anti-Semitic and anti-international hatred erupted in Bismarck’s Reich.  In 1890 the Emperor Wilhelm II got rid of Bismarck who spared the Germans a big internal domestic disaster but who, according to Winkler, in foreign policy committed a fatal blunder.  Bismarck had formed an alliance with Austria and Russia, which was based on mutual defense and 1887 on a neutrality pact.

Wilhelm II policy tried a different avenue. He wanted to “have a place in the sun” driven by the desire to pursue a colonial policy in the tradition of the British and French. The “reinsurance treaty” with Russia was not prolonged by Bismarck. In 1891 Bismarck got dismissed by Wilhelm II. In response there was a French-Russian alliance, followed by the French-British Entente.

Winkler summarizes the policy which led to the First World War (1914-18), and gives an analysis about the “Weimar Republic” and the rise of the far right Nazi Party under Hitler. With the support of people from the Oberste Heeresleitung (Supreme Army command) like Field Marshal General Paul von Hindenburg, as well as with support from Baron Franz von Papen and a significant part of the German industry, as well as the leading military circles – who all had contempt for democracy – the way was paved for Hitler’s rise to power on the 30th of January 1933.

Winkler documents the different phases of Hitler’s dictatorship and shows that from very early on, Hitler in discussion with military circles had made no secret that he was preparing for war – in search of new “Lebensraum” for the Germans in the East.  In a secret speech in front of the commanders of the Army, Navy and Airforce, Hitler presented his “irreversible decision, to solve the German problem of searching for ‘Lebensraum’ latest by 1943/45, or maybe even earlier.” After Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria and the 1939 occupation of Czechoslovakia which led to the establishment of “Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia”, Germany started a war against Poland on the 1st of September 1939. Hitler stated at the time: “The Reich hates the Jewish plutocratic and democratic masters, who only want to see slaves in the world.” While in Poland the SS troops engaged in mass executions of Jews, the Polish intelligentsia, doctors, jurists and peasants, “from the very beginning the Polish war had racist, genocidal characteristic,” according to Winkler. In 1940 Hitler occupied Denmark, followed by the occupation of Norway and then his Western invasion, into Netherlands, Luxemburg, Belgium, leading to the French capitulation in Compiegne. The most brutal of all wars was the war against the Soviet Union (whose 80th anniversary will be commemorated this year [a war where the SU alone lost 20 Million people E.H.] as President Steinmeier stressed in an interview 8th February to Deutschlandfunk, warning those who want to stop North Stream II, not to deepen the gap between Russia and Germany.)

The war against the Soviet Union

The attack against the SU began on June 22 1941. In the preceding months Hitler had made clear to the Wehrmacht, that this war was different from the Western military campaign. The war against “Jewish Bolshevism” would be a “racist annihilation war.” In front of 200 high level officers (according to Chief of Staff of the Army Franz Halder) Hitler stated then: “The fight against Russia: Annihilation of the bolshevist Commissars and Communist Intelligence… the Battle must be fought against the poison of decomposition.” As Winkler commented in his book: “Aside the liquidation of Commissars from the beginning of the war, the reckless looting of the conquered territory as a means to provide food for the Wehrmacht had been carefully planned. That this would mean the starvation of Millions of human beings, was accepted in the same way, as was the extinction and mass mortality of Millions of War prisoners from the Red Army. In the newly conquered ‘Lebensraum’ German peasants and craftsmen were supposed to be settled; the Ukraine, and Volga areas was supposed to become the “breadbasket” for Germany; the oil fields of Baku German Reichsgebiet and Russia to become ‘our India.’”  The turning point in the war was in the winter months 1941/42, and the decisive defeat was the battle around Stalingrad, ending in the heaviest losses for the Germans and the capitulation of the 6th German Army.

Genocide against the Jews

With the war against the SU also the “final solution of the Jewish question” entered a new phase. Nothing was decided yet concerning the physical annihilation of Jews by June 1941, according to Winkler. What became then more and more technically plausible was the mass killing of Jews with the help of gas chambers, which was used since the beginning of the war in the killing of mentally insane people. October 1941 the SS in Belzec near Lublin in the “Generalgouvernement” (Poland) set up the first extermination camp. Since November four gas chambers were constructed for the extermination of “Eastern Jews.” The extermination of 6 Million Jews by the Nazis during the holocaust was not the only Crime against Humanity by the Nazis, Winkler wrote. “Crimes were also perpetrated by the Nazis against Sinti / Roma; it included the killing of mentally insane, homosexuals and asocial people. There was as well the liquidation of the Polish elite, the starving of millions of citizens of the City of Leningrad, that was occupied for 2 years by the Nazi Wehrmacht; there were as well millions of starved prisoners of wars and civilian Russian, Ukrainians, White Russians and the murder of thousands of Civilian people in the occupied territories.”

The year 1945 marked a profound break in German history – deeper than the one in 1918. There was no more a German State. Germany was divided into four occupation zones and the High Command of the occupation powers controlled everything.  On the 23rd May 1949 the German Grundgesetz (constitution) was proclaimed, based on the reaffirmation of the “inviolable dignity of man.”  Within years, Germany became again a sovereign player in European politics, in which Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (CDU) had been instrumental: the “Montan-Union” – European Union of Steel and Coal, initiated by Robert Schumann (France) and Konrad Adenauer 1951 was an important construction element on the way to the EU. He mentioned the Paris treaty making Germany sovereign again and pointed, aside Adenauer’s contribution, also the one made by Egon Bahr (SPD) and his “Ostpolitik” which paved the way for the successful Final Act at the 1975 Helsinki Conference (CSCE).  After the fall of the Berlin wall 1989 and the collapse of the Yalta Order, a very important event occurred with the “Charta of Paris” Conference on November 21 1990, according to Winkler. 34 states at that time agreed on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the free choice of the alliance system, as well as the need to strengthen the democratic government forms. It was according to Winkler the “vision of Europe as a tricontinental peace zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”

Shadows of the past in the present: The problem of “moral overstretch”  

There is one important observation which is made by Winkler at the end of the book. It touches upon a problem which was and is “inherent” to the German state of mind up to this day. Winkler at one point reflects about the political handling of the “migration” crisis by Germany that erupted in 2015. In summer 2015, when 7000 illegal immigrants arrived daily (all in all 800.000 by the year end), Chancellor Merkel and the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann (SPÖ) on September 4, 2015 made the decision to open the border of the Balkan route via Hungary into Austria and Germany. Winkler qualifies this as a “decision with far reaching consequences,” stating that “Merkel and the Coalition” were responsible for the lack of coordination” (not informing the European Commission and Council and by not coordinating with leaders from neighboring EU countries). Its consequences were seen in Europe in the strengthening of the right wing nationalist PIS party (Poland), the beginning rise of the populist AFD (Germany) and in the June 2016 Brexit vote in England.

At one point Winkler notes that it was above all the German Greens and the Left that “unconditionally” supported Merkel’s policy in summer 2015. This was exemplified by a statement which on the 9th September 2015 Karin Göring-Eckardt, then vice chairwoman of the Green Party made in parliament: “Germany is the World Champion in terms of helpfulness and human love.” According to Winkler such statement could easily be considered as “expression of moral arrogance of Germany.”  He pointed to an article that was published February 2016 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) by the political scientist and social democrat René Cuperus (Netherland) who raised the question: “How could it happen that the otherwise prudent Merkel, head over heels, and against the spirit of Max Weber, put the spirit of “Ethos” (Gesinnung) over “Policy of Responsibility” (Verantwortungspolitik)?  Could it be that Germany gambles with the stability of its society for the sake of eternally coming to terms with its past, and compensate for its war guilt?”. Winkler also refers to an essay from the American Sociologist Ronald Ingelhart, who had analyzed that the “post materialist milieu” (German urban elite) and the “idea of post national identity” which as he stated went along with the cultivation of a “special humanitarian mission of Germany” and the feeling to “point the way for the other peoples of Europe.” According to Winkler this thinking was echoed in the German debate about Europe, migration and the environment: In no other country in Europe like in Germany, the “moralizing of German Policy” (“moral overstretch”) had been pushed more strongly than by the Greenies and some German Protestants.

Winkler’s observation as well as Steinmeier’s discussion round, could at present – where shrill tones from German Greenies are directed against Russia and Hungary – serve as useful reference: It is a call for more introspection and a humble reflection about the last 150 years of German history, so as to draw the right conclusions for the present.


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